The investigative journalist on #MeToo and the perils of taking on the powerful.
I am half an hour into lunch with Ronan Farrow, and we are yet to see a menu. Arriving first at the Union Club, a cosy members-only townhouse in the heart of London's Soho, I alighted upon an impeccably discreet table in the tartan-carpeted bar. But tucked neatly behind an imposing pillar, we find ourselves untroubled by waiters. "We kind of have our own room here," says Farrow, as we try to catch the eye of a passing member of staff. "We're maybe too protected."
Amid the rumpled, faintly bohemian clientele of the Union Club, the 31-year-old cuts a striking figure: perfectly coiffed, elegantly suited and still bearing a dusting of make-up from the morning's television appearances. He has the aura of a Hollywood princeling — he is actually east coast entertainment royalty, the son of actor Mia Farrow and director Woody Allen — and looks less like a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist than a man playing one in a TV movie. Yet in recent years, Farrow has won a reputation as one of America's most dogged reporters, relentless in the pursuit of powerful men alleged to have abused their positions.
The first to fall was Harvey Weinstein, in a story whose aftershocks are still being felt today. Farrow's October 2017 New Yorker exposé, published five days after the New York Times' Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey broke the story, laid out multiple accusations of rape and sexual assault against the producer, supercharging the #MeToo movement. The following year, Farrow's investigations for the New Yorker helped to topple Les Moonves, one-time chairman and chief executive of CBS, and Eric Schneiderman, former attorney-general of New York.
As we talk, Farrow sips green tea and honey. The Weinstein case was a journalistic white whale. For years, efforts to break the story had run aground because Weinstein's accusers, many of whom were bound by ferocious non-disclosure agreements, were afraid to speak on the record.
While painstakingly encouraging these women to tell their stories, Farrow came to share their anxiety. As he dug into the reporting, he began to suspect that he was being followed (he would later discover that Black Cube, an Israeli private intelligence firm, had been contracted to keep tabs on him). He visited a New Jersey gun range after a Hollywood agent urged him to buy a weapon to protect himself. And at one point, Farrow became so anxious that he deposited key recordings and transcripts of his interviews in a Bank of America vault. On top of the package, he placed a note: "Should anything happen to me, please make sure this information is released."
Did he truly fear for his life? "I had enough perspective to realise I wasn't in Pakistan, I wasn't in Russia, I wasn't in a place where journalists wind up dead all the time," says Farrow. "So on that level I was privileged. But, yes, it's scary and intimidating. You see very quickly why so many people aren't able to continue in the same situation."
As we talk, a steady stream of members enter the bar, escaping the rainy street to sit beside the club's blazing open fire. In this pleasantly somnolent atmosphere, Farrow's stories take on an extra piquancy. When he started investigating Weinstein, Farrow was working for NBC. But in his book Catch and Kill, a thriller-like reconstruction of his reporting of the Weinstein affair, he accuses his bosses there of sitting on the story, partly out of fear that what he portrays as the company's own problem of sexual harassment and secret settlements might be exposed.
NBC has denied the allegations, and has said that the company "has been on the frontline of exposing sexual misconduct", and it would be "illogical and absurd" to imply that this story was treated any differently. A memo to staff said the company had "no secrets and nothing to hide".
All the same, Farrow's accusations have led to disquiet within NBC. In a fiery on-air monologue, Rachel Maddow, one of the network's star commentators, said that the implications of his story were "very hard to stomach" and called for NBC to open an independent investigation to answer them.
When I ask whether Farrow thinks that NBC executives should be held to account, though, his answer is dispassionate. "It's not for me to say. All I can say is that the facts are there and they're indisputable," he says. "And I'm very inspired by the extent to which both women's rights activists and fellow journalists have encircled this and demanded accountability." (Farrow trained as a lawyer and worked for years as a diplomat, and at times like this — you can tell.)
Things were more personal when it came to Hillary Clinton. In 2011, when Clinton was secretary of state, she appointed Farrow as her special adviser for global youth issues; the pair worked together "for years", he says. But when word got around that Farrow was looking into the Weinstein story, he felt that his relationship with the politician — a beneficiary of donations from the producer — started to cool.
Was that a painful revelation? "It's remarkable how quickly even people with a long relationship with you will turn if you threaten the centres of power or the sources of funding around them," says Farrow evenly. "Ultimately, there are a lot of people out there who operate in that way. They're beholden to powerful interests and if you go up against those interests, you become radioactive very quickly." Clinton's spokesperson didn't respond to a request for comment.
Aware that we are residing in our own personal exclusion zone, I've been directing hopeful looks at every passing waiter. Now I enlist Farrow to the cause. "Shall we bat our eyes at somebody?" he asks, smiling, and within moments, we are handed two menus. In his book, Farrow writes wryly about wanting everyone he meets to like him. That hope must have taken quite a hammering by now. "Yes, it doesn't square at all. Our job [as journalists] is to be disliked. It requires being very persistent and very annoying. I'm assertive when it comes to the truth and I hope unflinching in doing my job. But it's not like I'm a personality that thrives on being despised."
For Farrow, though, these stories are less about individuals than they are about structures of power. "The cliché is accurate — power for sure corrupts," he says. "The revelation of the last few years of investigative journalism has been just how entrenched and corrupt the systems that uphold power structures are, and just how hard it is to break through them. But these stories also show that it's possible to break through them because sources are as brave as they are and whistleblowers continue to come forward."
The waiter returns, and after a quick scan of the comfort food-heavy menu, I order the pumpkin and ricotta ravioli, while Farrow chooses a bowl of cream of celery soup. While reporting on Weinstein, Farrow mostly subsisted on fast food. "Right now, you're seeing me at a particularly low ebb," he says, "so sadly you will not get to witness me housing a whole box of KFC."
Farrow is clear that he is a reporter, not an activist. But the nature of his work means he is indelibly associated with the #MeToo movement. "When I was working on the story, there were all these moments where I was called hysterical, emotional or too close to things, which are terms that are typically reserved for women in our society and that were directed at my sources first," he says.
"It's almost like I'm in a penumbra of misogyny and get some of the residual effects from it. I can't claim to understand what it's like to be a woman in either of our cultures and have all of that directed at you full force, but I probably have a little outsider's insight from that experience."
Equally, Farrow was readily accepted into what he characterises as an "old boys' club" at NBC. In Catch and Kill, he claims that he attended a meeting where MSNBC president Phil Griffin — the man who originally hired him — flourished a zoomed-in printout of a female reporter's crotch. (A spokesman for MSNBC declined to comment.)
"When I'm not acquiescent to that culture, they go quite cold and suddenly I'm frozen out," he says. "I think there's a little bit of puzzlement, of, how do we place him? Maybe he's not one of us. I only consider that a badge of honour."
The waiter arrives with our food. Farrow's soup is beige and forbidding, thick enough to stand a spoon in. My ravioli, meanwhile, is impressively unyielding — an al dente for the purists.
There's an extraordinary moment in Farrow's book where he gets a call from Weinstein. "You couldn't save someone you love," the producer declares melodramatically, "and now you think you can save everyone." The reference is to Farrow's sister, Dylan, who at the age of seven accused their father, Woody Allen, of sexual assault.
"Every story I work on, there is an effort to weaponise anything and everything," says Farrow, of the phone call. "And obviously Harvey Weinstein went as below the belt as possible in terms of trying to dig up anything personal that he could to shake me in those moments."
Farrow is no longer in touch with Allen (although, contrary to speculation that he might in fact be the son of Frank Sinatra, Farrow has insisted that the director is "legally, ethically [and] personally" his father). In a 2016 Hollywood Reporter piece, Farrow urged reporters to ask tougher questions of Allen, while refraining from the suggestion that actors stop working with him. It was reading that article that helped to persuade Rose McGowan, one of Weinstein's accusers, to talk to Farrow.
Did his personal history inform his reporting? "In terms of my sister's experiences, there wasn't any factual link," he says, "but it did imbue me with some understanding of what those sources were up against, because I'd seen someone I cared about go up against some of those obstacles and systems herself. I try to draw the distinction that it is possible to maintain journalistic arm's length and an impartial posture, while still being incredibly passionate about the issue that you're reporting on. I think that the best journalists, the ones that I really admire and look up to, often have that combination of traits." In the end, he says, his motivation is a professional one. "Reporters ultimately don't stop."
He sips a desultory spoonful of soup and politely ignores the fact that I am sawing through my ravioli with a knife. At the same time that Farrow was filing revelatory stories to the New Yorker and writing Catch and Kill, he was also putting the finishing touches on his Oxford PhD thesis: 81,461 words on "political representation and strategic reality in America's proxy wars". "My professors were very understanding, thank goodness," he says. "Over the years they'd ask about why I was presenting on American television every day, or why I was winning a Pulitzer."
The dons had a point, but this is Farrow's normal operating speed. He got his first degree — a BA in philosophy from Bard College, upstate New York — at the age of 15, having started university as a "very nerdy" 11-year-old. From there, he enrolled at Yale Law School; later, he was a Rhodes scholar. "You can be the judge of how socially maladjusted I am as a result, but I had fun," he says. "And I still have great friends from all of those areas of school life."
At the same time, he was travelling the world — first on humanitarian missions with his mother, then as a Unicef youth spokesperson. "I think the main thing I drew from my family was a real appreciation for my mom's spirit of public service," he says, "and hopefully some compassion and sense of perspective drawn from my siblings' life experiences." (Mia Farrow had 14 children, 10 of whom were adopted.) "I was very conscious of how fortunate I was and that I had been dealt a hand that not everyone in my family had. It was inculcated in me from a very early age that the point of having that kind of privilege is to try to pay it forward in some way and be as useful as you can be to the world. I definitely don't always live up to that, but I do have a little voice constantly nudging me in that direction."
On graduating from Yale Law School, Farrow joined the state department, working closely with the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who was then serving as special adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Holbrooke, a combustible figure best known for his role in shaping the Dayton Peace Accords, was a proponent of muscular liberal interventionism and something of a father figure for Farrow, who had first interned for him as a teenager. "I think he embodies the greatness of the tradition of American diplomacy, and one felt that he would have taken a bullet for anyone he was mentoring," says Farrow. "But at the same time he was incredibly difficult and drove people away from him. He would rip memos out of my hand so hard that they'd tear in half."
Could Farrow imagine returning to politics now? "One of the things I admire about Richard Holbrooke is that he went back into government over and over again, and he believed in those structures of American governance," he replies. "I don't know if that's for me in the long term. I wouldn't say no to the right opportunity to go back in, but it's not something that I am actively seeking either."
Right now, in fact, Farrow has to return to New York to promote a podcast spinning off from Catch and Kill, and to work on a series of investigative documentaries for HBO. There is also a wedding to think about — in a maximally efficient move, Farrow left a note in an early draft of Catch and Kill to propose to his boyfriend of eight years, Jon Lovett, a former Obama speech writer. Suddenly, he is on his feet. The soup is almost untouched. "I'm a little bit working all the time right now, which is an imbalance I might get to address at some point," he says, shaking my hand firmly and fixing me with a piercing stare. "But for now, it's only an honour."
Written by: Horatia Harrod
© Financial Times